Who gains in a recession?

Sylvia Porter

March 05, 1991|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,(c) 1991, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

If you want your small shop to be successful nowadays, take down the "Antiques" sign and replace it with one that says "Secondhand."

An unscientific survey of a half-dozen antique shops around the country indicates business is depressed. Yet secondhand and thrift shops are thriving.

It's not surprising, when you think about it. Despite all the other distractions of late, the public is aware we are in a recession. People are looking to stretch their dollars.

Greenwich, Conn., provides an example.

"Our sign says 'antiques,' but it might as well say 'expensive,' " moans the owner of a normally busy shop there. "That's the idea people have, and in good times it benefits us. Customers believe they're getting a little something extra. A lot of used furniture stores charge as much or more than we do, but during hard times they do better business. Everybody thinks that the same thing would cost twice as much here. Our image hurts us."

The point is reinforced at a used furniture shop not far away, on a less busy street. One recent afternoon, business was brisk. But prices were only a little lower, and the furniture was in worse condition. Customers purchased pieces there at bargain prices and talked of refinishing them.

The same afternoon, there was a crowd at the Greenwich Hospital Thrift Shop, run by the women's auxiliary there. Customers were buying everything from men's suits to sporting goods, though women's wear seemed to be the most popular offering. Prices there were uniformly low, despite the fact that the condition of the goods varied widely. Some items looked brand new, while others looked anything but.

Other locations around the country report much the same conditions: the upscale shops dealing in not-new merchandise are doing less business than usual, while the downscale ones are thriving.

Who else benefits from the recession? Again, a little research confirms what common sense suggests.

Automobile sales are and have been down. It's unlikely that large numbers of people have abandoned driving. Therefore, maintaining older cars must be a growth industry. It turns out that's absolutely right. Auto parts stores are doing good business, as are non-dealer repair shops and service stations that offer quick, low-price oil changes and other routine maintenance at a discount.

Influenced by world events that have altered styles, especially among young people, military surplus stores are doing surprisingly well. The demise of the East German army has flooded the market with warm woolen coats, furry Eastern Bloc hats and peculiar helmets. But U.S. surplus is selling well, too, and rare is the campus where you do not see students wearing fatigues or U.S. Army boots. The entrepreneur who corners the market in Iraqi military surplus could well make a fashion statement rivaling anything out of Rome or Paris.

It's easier than usual to get a table at a high-class and expensive restaurant, but the lines at the grocery stores are longer. Even busy "yuppies" are eating at home more often now.

The lines at movie theaters are shorter, and more theaters are offering lower ticket prices for some screenings. But the chances are good that the movie video you wanted to rent already will have been rented by someone else. People have discovered that a meal at home and a rented video, accompanied by home-made popcorn, is a lot cheaper than an equivalent night on the town.

What it comes down to is: while other concerns temporarily removed the recession from the headlines, the nation certainly has noticed we are in a recession. Its reaction has been ingenious and appropriate -- finding new and less expensive ways to enjoy the pleasures to which we have become accustomed.

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